Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

Falcons eager to end playoff drought vs Seahawks

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons know what it takes to win in the regular season.

When it comes to the playoffs, that's another story.

Perhaps no team faced a greater burden going into this postseason than the Falcons (13-3), the NFC's top-seeded squad for the second time in three years. They've yet to win a playoff game under the current trio of quarterback Matt Ryan, coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff - one-and-done in all three appearances going back to the 2008 season, the last two not even close.

Not surprisingly, the players keep insisting the previous years don't matter; they're only looking forward to Sunday's divisional game with the streaking Seattle Seahawks (12-5).

But the senior member of the team, center Todd McClure, concedes there will probably be some additional pressure when the Falcons take the field at the Georgia Dome.

That makes a quick start crucial to Atlanta's hopes.

``We've been disappointed a few times,'' said McClure, who's been with the Falcons for 13 years. ``I think we've got guys in this locker room who are hungry and ready to get over that hump.''

The Falcons have gone 56-24 in the regular season since Dimitroff and Smith took over in 2008 and drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick - more wins than any team during that span except New England (60-20). But the significance of five straight winning seasons, two division titles and, now, a fourth trip to the playoffs has been undermined by the lack of success in January.

It wasn't that big a deal when Atlanta, after surprisingly making the playoffs as a wild card one year after the Michael Vick debacle, lost to Arizona in the desert 30-24.

But the loss two years ago was a stunner, the No. 1-seeded Falcons - who, like this team, went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye - getting blown out at home in the divisional round by sixth-seeded Green Bay 48-21.

Then came last year, when Atlanta went 10-6 but was viewed as an underachieving squad, a perception that proved factual in the playoffs when the Falcons' high-powered but inconsistent offense was completely shut down by the New York Giants, who romped to a 24-2 victory on their way to capturing the Super Bowl title.

Carrying around all that baggage, the Falcons can't help but be a little skittish about facing a team that might be hotter than anyone in the league. The Seahawks have won six straight games, including last week's 24-14 victory over Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in the opening round of the playoffs.

``We can't get too tight,'' McClure said Wednesday. ``There's going to be some added pressure, I'm sure. I'm not going to say there's not. But if we come out, start fast of both sides of ball, some of that will die down. Then we can just go out and play football.''

Seattle coach Pete Carroll shrugged off the notion that his team has some sort of psychological edge on the Falcons.

``This has nothing to do with years past or story lines,'' he said. ``We're playing a terrific team, with a terrific coach and a terrific quarterback, and we're on the road. It's a monstrous task.''

Much of the burden for turning things around in Atlanta falls on Ryan, who set numerous franchise passing records and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time.

That said, his career numbers in the regular season are much better than his postseason stats. He's yet to throw for 200 yards in a playoff game. He's tossed more interceptions (four) than touchdowns passes (three), including a crucial pick that was returned for a touchdown right before halftime in that loss to the Packers. His passer rating is about 20 points lower in the postseason.

Ryan certainly tries to learn from his mistakes, but he won't spend much time talking about what happened before this season.

``I don't worry about it, I don't think about it,'' he said. ``My focus is for this locker room and for these guys and this coaching staff, making sure we're all together. We worked really hard during the course of the offseason and through training camp to give ourselves an opportunity to be playing at this time of year. We want to play our best football. That's really the only thing I'm worried about.''

Ryan certainly has plenty of the offensive weapons, with a pair of Pro Bowlers (receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez) plus another receiver who probably should've made it (Roddy White). While the running game has tailed off dramatically, the Falcons are much more capable of hitting big plays and putting up points in a hurry, a testament to the scheme installed by first-year coordinator Dirk Koetter.

``I'm confident in the guys around me,'' said Ryan, who has completed nearly 69 percent of his throws for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns. ``We've proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe in that. I feel more comfortable with the guys around me.''

Protecting Ryan has been in an issue in the last three playoff losses, so the onus will be on an often-maligned line to keep the Seahawks out of the backfield - no easy task facing a defense that is willing to stack the line and leave its cornerbacks in single coverage.

But the biggest task for Smith and his coaching staff might be getting the players to have a convenient case of amnesia. He doesn't want them lingering over those last three trips to the playoffs.

``We're a much more mature team because of our experiences,'' Smith said. ``We feel very good about we've accomplished thus far this year. We have expectations. We set our goals, and we've been clicking along pretty well this season. I like the way we've played through the first season.''

Now comes the second season.

The one that really matters.

Notes: DE John Abraham (left ankle) and S William Moore (hamstring) were limited in practice Wednesday, but Smith said he expects both to play on Sunday. Moore hasn't played since a Nov. 29 victory over New Orleans. ... The only players to miss practice were a pair of backup defensive backs, rookie S Charles Mitchell (calf) and CB Christopher Owens (hamstring).

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

O.J. Simpson Granted Parole after Nine Years in Prison

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USA TODAY Sports

O.J. Simpson Granted Parole after Nine Years in Prison

LOVELOCK, Nev. -- O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday after more than eight years in prison for a Las Vegas hotel-room heist, successfully making his case for freedom in a nationally televised hearing that reflected America's enduring fascination with the former football star.

Simpson, 70, could be released as early as Oct. 1. By then, he will have served the minimum of his nine-to-33-year armed-robbery sentence for a bungled attempt to snatch sports memorabilia and other mementos he claimed had been stolen from him.

All four parole commissioners who conducted the hearing voted for his release after about a half-hour of deliberations. They cited, among other things, the low risk he might commit another crime, his community support and his release plans, which include moving to Florida.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," Simpson said quietly as he buried his head on his chest with relief. As he rose from his seat to return to his prison cell, he exhaled deeply.

Then, as he was led down a hall, the Hall of Fame athlete and one-time murder defendant in the 1995 "Trial of the Century" raised his hands over his head in a victory gesture and said: "Oh, God, oh!"

Simpson's sister, Shirley Baker, wept and hugged Simpson's 48-year-old daughter Arnelle, who held a hand over her mouth.

During the more than hour-long hearing, Simpson forcefully insisted -- as he has all along -- that he was only trying to retrieve items that belonged to him and never meant to hurt anyone. He said he never pointed a gun at anyone nor made any threats during the holdup of two sports memorabilia dealers.

"I'm sorry it happened, I'm sorry, Nevada," he told the board. "I thought I was glad to get my stuff back, but it just wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth it, and I'm sorry."

Inmate No. 1027820 made his plea for freedom in a stark hearing room at the Lovelock Correctional Center in rural Nevada as the parole commissioners questioned him via video from Carson City, a two-hour drive away.

Gray-haired but looking trimmer than he has in recent years, Simpson walked briskly into the hearing room in jeans, a light-blue prison-issue shirt and sneakers. He chuckled at one point as the parole board chairwoman mistakenly gave his age as 90.

Simpson was widely expected to win parole, given similar cases and his good behavior behind bars. His defenders have argued, too, that his sentence was out of proportion to the crime and that he was being punished for the two murders he was acquitted of in Los Angeles in 1995, the stabbings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Before the hearing concluded, one of the dealers Simpson robbed, Bruce Fromong, said the former football great never pointed a gun at him during the confrontation, adding that it was one of Simpson's accomplices. Fromong said Simpson deserved to be released so he can be with his children.

"He is a good man. He made a mistake," Fromong said, adding the two remain friends.

Arnelle Simpson, the eldest of Simpson's four children, also testified on his behalf, saying, "We recognize that he is not the perfect man." But she said he has been "a perfect inmate, following all the rules and making the best of the situation."

"We just want him to come home, we really do," she said.

Simpson said that he has spent his time in prison mentoring fellow inmates, often keeping them out of trouble, and believes he has become a better person during those years.

"I've done my time. I've done it as well and respectfully as I think anybody can," he told the board.

Asked if he was confident he could stay out of trouble if released, Simpson replied that he learned a lot from an alternative-to-violence course he took in prison and that in any case he has always gotten along well with people.

"I've basically spent a conflict-free life, you know," he said -- a remark that lit up social media with sarcastic comments about the murder case and a raft of allegations he abused his wife.

Several major TV networks and cable channels -- including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and ESPN -- carried the proceedings live, just as some of them did two decades ago during the Ford Bronco chase that ended in Simpson's arrest, and again when the jury in the murder case came back with its verdict.

Simpson said if released he plans to return to Florida, where he was living before his incarceration.

"I could easily stay in Nevada, but I don't think you guys want me here," he joked at one point.

"No comment, sir," one of the parole board members said.

Authorities must still work out the details of Simpson's release, including where he will live and what rules he must follow.

An electrifying running back dubbed "The Juice," Simpson won the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best college football player in 1968 and went on to become one of the NFL's all-time greats.

The handsome and charismatic athlete was also a "Monday Night Football" commentator, sprinted through airports in Hertz rental-car commercials and built a Hollywood career with roles in the "Naked Gun" comedies and other movies.

All of that came crashing down with his arrest in the 1994 slayings and his trial, a gavel-to-gavel live-TV sensation that transfixed viewers with its testimony about the bloody glove that didn't fit and stirred furious debate over racist police, celebrity justice and cameras in the courtroom.

Last year, the case proved to be compelling TV all over again with the ESPN documentary "O.J.: Made in America" and the award-winning FX miniseries "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story."

In 1997, Simpson was found liable in civil court for the two killings and ordered to pay $33.5 million to survivors, including his children and the Goldman family.

Then a decade later, he and five accomplices -- two with guns -- stormed a hotel room and seized photos, plaques and signed balls, some of which never belonged to Simpson.

Simpson was convicted in 2008, and the long prison sentence brought a measure of satisfaction to some of those who thought he got away with murder.

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Otto Porter not fazed by Wizards' interest in Paul George or John Wall's comments

Otto Porter not fazed by Wizards' interest in Paul George or John Wall's comments

John Wall's comments to ESPN's Marc Spears back in June brought all sorts of reactions, some honing in on his reference to Otto Porter and how his position at small forward could potentially be upgraded if the Wizards were to trade for Paul George, as at the time they were linked to the then-Pacers superstar. What Wall meant was that as good as Porter is, George is a superstar and therefore better. He even couched his comments by saying of Porter: "you can't take nothing away from what he did."

Many saw those quotes how Wall intended them and Porter can be included in that mix.

"We're talking about Paul George here. If we could get him on our squad? We could definitely contend for a championship," Porter said after the press conference to announce his new four-year contract worth $106.5 million on Wednesday.

[RELATED: Re-signing Otto Porter was never a doubt for Wizards]

George has since been traded to the Thunder and is not in the Wizards' picture, while Porter is here to stay. He will remain a key cog in the Wizards' operation alongside Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris and others.

No one has to tell Porter that he himself can improve. He highlighted his ballhandling skills, for example, during his press conference as something he would like to work on.

If Porter takes more steps in development, he could close the gap between him, George and the other All-Star small forwards.

"It's just motivation. I will continue to get back into the gym. I didn't take anything personal. I'm just going to continue to go out there and work and play my game," Porter said.

[RELATED: Wizards Tipoff podcast - New NBA jerseys, will LeBron leave?]